Tales of the Unexpected - don't give people what they think they want.

I’m told that the cover of the first edition of the newly relaunched New Zealand Marketing magazine had a cover personalised to its recipient. From what I can gather the extent of the customisation was simply to say something like ‘Hello David…’. I didn’t feel I had missed much. Mail-merged salutation is little more than a 90’s party trick in the era of web 2.0.

It reminded me of Saul Wurman’s comments about customisation in Information Anxiety 2 “There is a tendency to go overboard towards customising when you try to give people only what you think they want.” Wurman thinks customisation is a worthless idea – in the context of customised marketing, web experiences, newspapers and so forth because ‘people often buy what they didn’t know they wanted in what they didn’t know they were looking for’ – a serendipitous effect. If you only get what you thought you wanted, he argues, you don’t get much.

He brings the discussion round to the subject of creativity – the observation of patterns. Without a little meandering you don’t see the patterns in life that permit you to make new connections. As Wurman explains, “If I did a survey of people’s interests they would never list jugglers, etymologists, vibraphone players, or science advisors. But the jugglers, bug person, vibraphonist and science advisor to the ‘X-Files’ were what everyone remembered from the last year’s TED Conference.”

This construct interests me because I have often wondered why I can attend a meeting with a colleague, hear the same information, but come away with an entirely different interpretation of the business opportunity than my associate. We are programmed differently. He or she may have a sales or business management background that conditions them to respond literally to a client’s description of what is required to solve their problem. They are more likely to assume the client’s brief is an instruction – a literal description of their expectations. This corresponds to Wurman’s analogy about searching for ‘boxing’ information on the web. If only information about the kind of pugilism popularised by the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson or Cassius Clay is delivered then the opportunity to follow serendipitous threads and see patterns is lost “Maybe I am interested in violent sports or two person sports. Maybe I would be just as interested in Sumo wresting or tennis or chess?” My colleague is more likely to express a desire to give the client ‘what they asked for…” as a customised service response. Doing so can be a limitation on our effectiveness as a creative business.

When I use the term ‘creative business’ I don’t necessarily mean producer of hare-brained, random ideas – though the hare-brain and an element of randomness may play a key role in discovering solutions that might not be evident to other individuals or firms.

One of the characteristics of creative people, in my experience, is their interest in a wide range of topics. One of my favourite indulgences is to visit my local Borders book store, collect a pile of magazines covering topics I have no deep interest in like yoga, genealogy, model aeroplanes or fashion and to flip through them simply out of general interest and because there is the chance that a pattern, as described by Wurman, might emerge. It might be a social trend or the process might help offer up a solution to a problem I had sublimated earlier but not solved.

Returning to my colleague and client, the literal approach to problem solving – tailoring the solution exactly to the perceived problem is a significant business limitation – the opportunity to beat competitors with an innovation is lost if the problem isn’t taken more seriously.
Teaching design research methods one of the concepts I thought essential for my students to grasp was that of imponderability. To some extent there is no point in asking people what they want – especially in terms of new products and services – because they simply cannot express what they don’t know.

In business the unknown is often an idea that is regarded with some suspicion. Executives with MBAs are trained to analyse and manage the known, the finite resources available to a business. Processes are often conventions, accepted by the majority – and so, therefore, somehow correct, until they are overturned by a novelty or innovation.

The assumption that advertising agencies respond to customised client briefs for individual products led to my invention of Family Health Diary, an advertising product that permits many brands and advertisers to use a pre-formatted idea. It is now a multi-million dollar media product in New Zealand and Australia.

In the beginning my colleagues resisted the idea because it was ‘not what the client asked for’. But, of course, the client couldn’t ask for it because the idea did not exist. Nor would it have existed if I had not been exposed to some random, hare-brained stimulus – one of which was a flirtation with Amway with my then-wife.

Amway is an excellent training organisation and one of the ideas that stuck with me was that the most effective ways of succeeding is to do something once but be paid for it over and over again. As I worked late one night on the pitch for a large pharmaceutical account I found myself resenting the absence of my colleagues who did not have the required craft skills to help put the campaign into a tangible form for presentation. Not only that, but also I have a long held resentment of developing speculative ideas for clients who high-handedly decided from either my business or another’s but didn’t necessarily pay for the process. To complete the ‘perfect storm’ my wife, who worked for the same client’s advertising agency would complain to me about working on products whose budgets were so small that, by the time meetings were conducted to plan and discuss, concepts developed and produced – there would be nothing left for placing in media. It was a self-defeating problem. Because the agency valued the client’s higher spending brands and watched over the control of the account like a tigress tended her cubs, it was better to do nothing about the problem (which the client also assumed, with conventional wisdom, was a hopeless cause and so accepted the status quo).

When my partners and I won the new product launch the client made one significant condition that opened a serendipitous gateway for me. We could have the account on the proviso that we relinquish another pharmaceutical account we held. Little did they know it was dormant and had stopped spending on the product while the FDA investigated claims that it was lethal.

In order to get their hands on the millions attached to the drug launch we had pitched for my colleagues were more than happy to relinquish the languishing account – but I pitched in first: We would let go of the other company’s account if they would spend more with us. It was a risky gambit. We needed the account and would probably have folded if we hadn’t won the business. But the client manager simply said: ‘show me how’. Over the next weekend I mapped out Family Health Diary. It seemed logical to combine many small products under a unified banner and to present in a style that didn’t consume the kind of creative resource that would devour the budget before getting to the media.

Over the years the presentation format of Family Health Diary has changed but its essence has not and the premise remains as effective now as it was then. But the solution would not have ever come about if we had simply followed the instructions of the client – neither they, nor my colleagues could possibly have arrived at the solution because their inputs didn’t reveal the same patterns as mine and their approach to business is premised on matching a client’s perceived need with a tailored (customised) solution.

It seems counter-intuitive not to give people what they say they want. We’re conditioned to assume this is how business should be conducted. I’m not so sure. No market research would have uncovered the latent need for the iPod or iPhone, let alone Lego or the product I have in mind now (I can see the opportunity – but it’s not exactly what the client asked for – and it is vast).

Make room for a little meandering in your thinking. A linear approach will take you to the same destination as your competitors. That’s fine if you want to scramble after incremental changes in market share…but if you want to develop intellectual property that gives you some protection or such a significant head start on competitors that you will have the market to yourself (at least for a while), then maybe tailoring your ideas to a specific instruction might not be such good business after all?


  1. Anonymous10:19 am

    good article, but disagree with MBA way of thinking, MBA's are not constrainged by history any longer, times demand that thinking is based on considering history but looks to the future (not as in 'moving forward' I might add!), and for the same reason as in your article, by the time strategy was developed, the market had moved.

  2. Anonymous1:53 pm

    Love the blog Dave, and completely agree with the sentiments. I bought a Pentagram Design book a few years back, in part because it had a chapter entitled "The client is always wrong". Which, I hasten to add, I don't actually believe. It's just that I needed to provide my account service team with a counterbalance to the standard cliché.

    About the same day you posted this, I had a conversation with our (very experienced and accomplished, thank god) account director about "account service's job". We likened the relationship between client brief and creative solution to the raising of a child: agree some very strict boundaries at the outset, and then allow the child (idea/creative process) as much freedom within those boundaries as possible. Including time to stop and smell the flowers, daydream a little, and maybe even stub its toe, before reaching the required milestone.

    Managing client expectations can be... interesting. But at my company we've banged the "give us a problem not a solution" gong long enough that many of our clients now actually expect the unexpected—and, I believe, actually enjoy the experience.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Headphones to create a new experience at concerts

Outing myself as a hippy